A new translation of the Old English classic alongside two sturdy sequels.
Though the monstrous Grendel has been defeated by the conclusion of the original epic poem, the story ends on a cliffhanger: The titular hero is dead, and the future of his people is uncertain. In his sequels, Webber (American to the Backbone, 2011 etc.) picks up right where Beowulf left off, with the Geatish people struggling to maintain their power and security. When a mission to defeat the nearby Swedes goes catastrophically wrong, Beowulf’s young comrade Wiglaf insists that the Geats must abandon their homes and sail in search of a new, peaceful land. The first sequel (Beyond Beowulf, first published in 2006) is the story of that search, the challenges the tribe faces—raging storms, fearsome trolls—and the people it encounters along the way. Yrfa’s Tale, the second sequel, covers the same ground, but it does so retrospectively in the voice of Wiglaf’s wife. Rather than discussing battles and glory, Yrfa focuses on the emotional effects of the journey and what they ultimately mean for the Geats’ future. Webber’s translation of the original Beowulf is meticulous and vivid. In the introduction, he states his intention to preserve the text’s aural effect by following a strict alliterative structure akin to the original’s; indeed, his translation’s clean, musical lines are excellent for reading aloud. The two sequels also maintain the original’s language and narrative style. Tonally, however, Beyond Beowulf rings slightly off. Wiglaf’s constant insistence on peace and cooperation jars against Beowulf’s glorification of bloodshed and warfare; as such, it feels uncomfortably modern. Yrfa’s Tale is the real standout of the trilogy. Yrfa’s reflections on family and relationships bring an immediate humanity and realism to the epic tale that the other two volumes lack, and those universal themes are likely to appeal to a contemporary audience while remaining true to Beowulf’s original context. Yrfa’s beautifully rendered emotions are enjoyable and enlightening: “The phantoms that I fear the most are formless / And hold their power in the human heart.”
Succeeds in both respecting and enriching the venerable original.